11/03/2012

number one cloud street

Tim Winton. Where do I start?

I think cloudstreet is unarguably his best piece of (serious) work. But… To be forthright, as much as I love his style of writing, I have a problem with his books, as whole pieces of work. They are sparsely written with hauntingly simple yet achingly eloquent language and subtly vivid descriptions. Once you step back and look at them again, however, you realise how hollow and empty they are, like waves; there’s all the build up (and promise) in the world, but once it breaks and another book has been read, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Throughout everything Winton wrote pre-cloudstreet, you find traces and fragments of the themes that would come to define his masterpiece, as if they were all experiments before he found the right recipe. Post-cloudstreet, everything he writes is trying to be cloudstreet, as if he’s trying to recapture the seemingly effortless wonder and economy of storytelling he employed so magically in his sprawling story, trying to recapture the epic lovefest that surrounds Australia’s favourite book about itself. I think part of the problem is that because of cloudstreet, and the way it’s loved by everyone (I may be exaggerating, but it seems not too far off the truth from my experience), people are willing to overlook or turn a blind eye to the lack present in his other books. (Critics don’t help much here, either; they seem afraid to point out the inadequacies of the emperor’s new clothes, and instead fall over themselves in their emphatic and borderline sycophantic praise for everything Wintonian.)

I digress.

Take Dirt Music, for example. It starts off well enough, with Georgie Jutland and a stranger who slowly get to know each other, and there are the typically effortlessly-Wintonian scenes on the verandah as they discuss music and play their own. “Dirt music. Y’know, anything you can play on a verandah, without electricity. Dirt music.” (p95) But as soon as the story moves to northern Australia, the plot loses traction and spirals into its own stylistic quagmire. It almost feels like two distinctly different books that have been stitched together, the beginning of one, the ending of another, and hoping that somehow they’d work together.
The Riders is another example. There are some lovely Wintonian sequences in the book – not to mention the sparse but distinctly evocative dialogue, and the description of Paris’ rooftops – but at the end of the book, and it might just be me, I don’t think we ever learn why Jennifer never turned up in Ireland. It just leaves you hanging, empty, wanting to know more, wanting to know why. If anything, the best bits were the interludes with the riders, the spectral phantoms which haunt the countryside; at the very least, they gave the story a sense of understandable mystery and allure.

Perhaps it’s Breath, though, that I have the biggest problem with. His first novel in seven years, Breath was released in 2008 amidst much hype that it would be a return to his cloudstreet heights of storytelling. Sadly, this turned out to be as far from the truth as you could possibly get. The story of two teenage boys and their love for surfing, the book is, in a sense, a metaphor for surfing, for riding a wave. It starts off small, gathers momentum, sucks you into its story, and then as it breaks, you ride the crest down until it collapses in a mass of foam and broken water against the shore, dumping you against the sand, pushing you under, and you emerge into the sunlight blinking and wondering ‘was that it?’ In a way, it’s also a metaphor for orgasm, which, considering the second half of the book, is also an apt reading. (Also, the idea of breathing and asphyxiation, drowning, are also thematic concerns of Breath, hence its title.)

I think the only book that truly comes close to cloudstreet is Shallows, his 1984 book about whaling. It’s not without its Wintonian flaws, but as a whole, it’s pretty damn good. I personally think that it is one of his best books, perhaps his only other good book (not counting The Bugalug’s Bum Thief, which is in another league of its own), and there’s something rewarding about it, about finishing it, about the way it combines the two distinctly different eras to create a portrait of a small town’s reliance upon whaling, about the way in which it works upon you.


But for me, cloudstreet is the irreplicable pinnacle of Winton’s career, and the work for which he will always be known, for better or worse. It is perhaps the one book that I say is my favourite above every other, for the simple reason that it is so bugfuckingly huge and amazing. Set over twenty years, it is the sprawling saga of two families under one roof, in a giant old creaking, living breathing house, somewhere in Perth. It’s about death and love, luck and misfortune, family, The Shifty Shadow of fate, nostalgia, making-do, sticking-it-out, getting-by, Being, living, existing; it’s funny, heartbreaking, soul-crushingly beautiful, and life-affirmingly wonderful; it’s nothing short of remarkable, and it’s cloudstreet. It just Is. The spiritual aspect of it, while noticeable, never becomes obtrusive, intrusive, never overcomes the story, the story’s heart; instead, what is left at the end of the book is the feeling that you’ve just spent time with a remarkable group of people.

I’ve read cloudstreet five or six times now, I try to read it once a year if I can, and each time I read it, it’s like going back home and seeing your best friends again – you jump straight into it and it feels like you never really left. When I first read it, I never got the ending; it was only when I read the play – which I wish I had seen, if only I wasn’t five or six years too young – that I got it and realised just how truly magnificent it is.

And then there’s the television miniseries.
And the fact that there’s something fundamentally un-cloudstreet-like about it. I think it all comes down to the fact that cloudstreet is an inherently imagined space, it’s as personal and as communal as you can get, and it will always mean something – be something – different to everyone who comes across it. Number One Cloud Street is, by it’s nature, always going to look different to every person who imagines it, as are the families Pickles and Lamb, the streets, the clothes, the yard etcetera etcetera… Watching the miniseries was like seeing a photograph come to life – you’ve seen it so many times that you know exactly how it goes, but when it comes to life there’s just something eversoslightly wrong with it, as though the lens isn’t right or the details are blurry or wrong… It didn’t feel like cloudstreet. It was too long, too languid, too drawn out; too caught up in its own reverence of the source material, too desperate to get it right, to not fuck it up. Part of the problem could be the fact that Winton himself wrote the shooting draft of the screenplay, so there wasn’t the ruthlessness, the essential paring down of its wordiness and rhythms that it, upon completion, seemed to need, something that another writer could have perhaps leant to the production.

Ultimately, I guess it all comes down to personal taste, knowing what you like and don’t like. The Sydney Theatre Company are co-producing Winton’s second play in November of this year; billed as a cross between Dirt Music and cloudstreet, I’m curious to see it, but I’m also wary of it. I guess I just don’t want it to be like his novels, filled with a kind of desperate pessimism, their empty landscapes mirrors – metaphors – for their inhabitants, the relentless unforgiving ocean never too far away, the rut of thematic concerns and character types that he seems to wallow in.
As a site for the dreaming of an imagined Australia though, cloudstreet is nigh on flawless, and I think that’s why we all love it. Marieke Hardy described it as “[feeling] like looking through the plane window when you're flying back into the country.” And I couldn’t agree more.

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